Who Gets to Define Theft?

Remember that feeling you had last fall after the 32 percent fee increase was approved? The feeling that the fee increases weren’t going to solve any of our problems? Certainly not the crowded classes, understaffed departments, closed libraries and underpaid service, academic and maintenance workers. Especially since all we could see on campus were more construction projects and a couple of new bronze anteaters at the student center. In short, we felt like the UC was ripping us off.

But how can we describe what has happened to us if no rule has been broken? Can we only talk about being extorted (forced to pay an institution that uses our money for whatever it wants) or being robbed (giving money to an institution and not getting what we paid for in return) if there has, in fact, been a violation of a law?

It was recently revealed in the Los Angeles Times that some UC and CSU misused funds, appropriating general funds for purposes that the money was clearly not intended for. At UCLA, $25 million has been taken from the money raised through student fee increases to renovate Pauley Pavilion, home of their Division I basketball team. At CSU Sacramento, $5.6 million was spent to protect a failed real estate investment. Finally, a student-scholarship foundation at Sonoma State made private loans totaling $8 million to a former board member.

There haven’t been any such allegations of impropriety made of UCI’s administration. We, as a student body, know why or how all those buildings have been built while our course offerings have been cut, but we can assume that no rules were broken.

But let’s keep in mind that the administrations of the afore-mentioned schools maintain that they haven’t broken any rules either.

And that’s the damned thing about it. The administration steals from students. We’re paying higher fees to sit in overcrowded lectures, to deal with fewer hours at the library, and to get our pictures taken next to bronze anteaters at the student center. That is, we have no say and no control over what the institution does with our tuition.

What’s worse, we can’t even call it theft! The administration has even stolen our language for expressing the wrongs done to us. After all, how can we claim to be wronged when there were planning committees, referenda, numerous reports and restricted allocations that all suggest the administration has done nothing wrong? We all feel vaguely like we’ve been robbed, but because the people stealing our money also make all the rules for how our money is spent, we’re stuck floating in air. It can’t be theft because the people robbing us are the people who define what “theft” means.

Then, what solutions do we really have for these problems? It isn’t simply a question of getting information from the administration.

For instance, the administration can provide detailed information on how student fees are funneled through the UCOP’s finance division and then divvied up in the general fund for salaries, inflation adjustments, maintenance and infrastructural renewal, and seismic upgrades to campus structures. Also keeping in mind that core funding is divided among several sub-divisions of the university, from student affairs to business services to academic affairs and degree-granting units.

It’s confusing, to say the least. Indeed, I’m not sure what I just said. There are mountains of jargon, the rules don’t make any sense, there are a hundred different persons and groups to blame, and each person and group can point to a dozen other groups who they think are to blame. As a student, you can blame an individual office, but they can blame Admin and they can blame the Regents and they can blame Arnold Schwarzenegger and he can blame the legislature and they can blame us and our parents.

One thing is clear, though. The Admins (and the Regents) are still assaulting students, even when they aren’t breaking the rules. UCLA’s admin has a truckload of justifications for what they’re doing. Our own Admin will talk you to sleep, if they talk to you at all, explaining why your fees are going up and why the school has spent any money at all on creepy anteater statues on benches.

This is to say that even when the rules and regulations are being followed perfectly, they’re still stealing from us. As students and as workers we have to remember that it’s perfectly legal for us to be ripped off. That is, the rules are not designed to protect us, but to make legal the assaults against us. We have to realize this, and we have to refuse to let the administration force us to use their language, to fall into the trap of letting those in power tell us what they’ve done to us.

James Bliss is a fourth-year political science, women’s studies and African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.